Kathleen Sheard is a Montana-based wildlife artist, but not in the way you might imagine. You won't find grizzly bears or elk, no cows or horses in her designs. Her animals–sea turtles, lions, giraffes—are mostly inspired from far away places like Africa where she rarely spends her time. Furthermore, the exotic animals she illustrates—usually modeled from photographs—are actually rendered with small pieces of glass put through multiple firings. The tiny pieces of glass, called "frit," can be as fine as microscopic specks of dust or as big as peas. If you think of it like a painting, the frit is her paint. A spoon and glue-gun combo is her brush. A sheet of glass is her canvas. The entire assemblage can be any shape and nearly any size, as long as it fits into one of her custom-made kilns. Instead of a glass mosaic look, however, the images end up looking like paintings, though one thing gives them away: All that compounded glass can lead to art pieces weighing 200 pounds or more.
"I can only achieve the detail and the photo realism by learning new ways to work the glass every time I start a new art piece," Sheard says. "My creative process is continually evolving, and to say I build my work upside down and backwards means I am solving a unique puzzle almost daily."
This is not an easy artistic path to take. There are few places in the world that manufacture the frit, but Sheard gets hers from Bullseye Glass Company and Uroboros Glass Studios in Portland, Ore. On top of access issues, there is the time needed for each art work. After all the labor of layering the frit, the firings can take between a day to a week, depending on its size. Some pieces require up to seven or eight firings, where Sheard adds extra frit in each layer to create a sense of depth.
Unlike painting, glass doesn't easily mix together no matter how tiny the pieces. Glass Alchemy creates nearly any color Sheard might need, but she also mixes her own frits. "If they get too chunky sized, they really don't mix together," she says. "They touch. [But] you can create another type of color by touching."
Some of Sheard's most interesting creations are her reliquaries, which she calls "vessels of living animal spirits." She started designing the ash containers in 2009 when a man requested she make a reliquary with a giraffe painted on it. He told her that before his wife died she loved Africa and had admired her giraffe pieces for several years.
The models for Sheard's glass animals come from photographs. But she also has first-hand knowledge of the wild creatures. In the late 1990s, Sheard went all-in on her passion and traveled to Africa to study under renowned wildlife artists John Banovich and Kobus Moller. Being with them allowed her to get VIP access to the land and animals in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia. Her obsession with zebras has led some of her private art students to call her "The Zebra Lady."
Sheard is a vocal animal advocate. She's a member of Artists For Conservation, a nonprofit international organization dedicated to the celebration and preservation of the natural world. She became particularly interested in the environmental threat to sea turtles when, in 2009, Tropical Storm Claudette, Hurricane Gustav and other powerful storms drowned sea turtle nest eggs along the coasts. The turtles' plight was furthered during the Gulf of Mexico oil spill a year later.
Since that time she's set up a "turtle hospital" in her home with seven aquariums in her dining room. When not painting in her studio in Hamilton, she volunteers on a sea turtle patrol in Alligator Point, Fla., during which she walks the beaches for hours looking for evidence of turtle activity and documenting it.
Listening to Sheard talk about sea turtles, one starts to understand her passion is deeply rooted.
"My love of wildlife began when I was 3 or 4 years old and I had my first red-eared slider turtle in a round plastic container complete with a palm tree," she says. "I was also fascinated by glass and its many moods even before there was a stained glass shop in Pueblo, Colo. I took the first stained glass class offered in Pueblo in 1977, where one of my first stained glass pieces was a small turtle panel. It took me 19 years in stained glass to recognize I was to incorporate my two passions together and be a wildlife artist with glass as my medium."
For almost 30 years since, she's dreamed of making a life-sized cast glass sea turtle. She's currently working on it nowher magnum opus. The physical representation has changed several times, but her vision for what the piece will represent to her has stayed the same.
"It's a new and larger process," she says. "But this work demonstrates a passion that continues ... to embrace change, which is a constant in life."